Coelho, Paulo (2009-10-13). The Pilgrimage (p. 35). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
I am not Catholic, and am at best, "spiritual but not religious." Even so, I became enamored with the Santiago de Compostela Camino ever since I read Shirley MacLaine's book, The Camino. The idea of this spiritual pilgrimage that is traditionally Catholic but with ancient, spiritual antecedents, captured, somehow, my longing for insight into the "why" of this world, and my desire to see beyond the bubble into the reality of "what is." And so The Camino became one of my favorite books and I developed a deep respect for Shirley MacLaine as a fellow seeker.
I also discovered Paulo Coelho from his wonderful little book, The Alchemist, where the author offered a tremendous parable of what life is really about and how we should live it. Then I discovered that Mr. Coelho also traveled down the Camino and wrote a book about his insights from the journey. He called that book, The Pilgrimage, and it also became one of my favorites.
So what is it about this ancient path from the Pyrenees to the Atlantic Ocean across northern Spain that inspires such devotion? Is it the idea that St. James' bones are preserved at the end of the trek? That Kings and Popes have made the journey over the ages? Or maybe that the road follows a major leyline (paths of Earth energy)? I don't know; maybe all of the above. It may be just the simple need to believe in a place and an act (the walk) that acknowledges the faith and desire of the seeker to humble himself to a higher power, trusting that insight into why she is here and what it all means, will be granted. Or maybe just the exertion of asking the question and making the quest is all that is required to open the seeker to input from a high spiritual connection.
I had heard that a good movie to watch for those curious about the Camino was The Way, made by Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen. I watched it recently and added it to my canon of loved inspirational dramas.
This movie was one of 7 that was a collaboration between the father and son team. While it was not a thriller or a scifi/fantasy blockbuster epic, it was obviously a labor of love. I understand that Mr. Sheen had made the pilgrimage with his son, Taylor, and wished to express his love of the trek in a documentary. His son Emilio (The Breakfast Club), however, thought the journey would be best expressed in a drama. They finally agreed on the latter and The Way was the result.
The story is of an American ophthalmologist (Tom), a man in his sixties, who receives word of his son, Daniel's death in France. Daniel had died in a storm in the Pyrenees mountains after being only one day on his journey down the Santiago de Compostela Camino (The Camino). Tom travels to France to retrieve his son's body and learns there the facts surrounding his son's quest and death. He also learns about the Camino and so makes the bond between his estranged relationship to his dead son, and his son's desire to make the pilgrimage. So he decides to make the Camino journey himself, scattering the ashes of his son along the way.
In making the pilgrimage, Tom encounters some fellow pilgrims who become his reluctant (to him) partners. One is a Dutchman with an appreciation of recreational drugs, a Canadian woman who is walking to find the strength to quit smoking, and an an Irish writer who is seeking to overcome his "block." Tom's challenge is to overcome his own cold veneer and learn to open up to life and to the goodwill of others.
Walking the Camino is an act of faith. It is one that most people, in modern society, will judge as crazy for all but the religiously fanatic (often judged as a kind of insanity). It is one of those acts that takes one outside the norm of existence and threatens to expose the bankruptness of a normal, day-to-day life. It is therefore both understandable and dangerous. This idea is expressed in the movie in an early scene of Tom's remembrance of a conversation with Daniel about his choice of life vocation (or his "non-choice"). Daniel had said to his father:
You don't choose a life, dad. You live one.
Tom can't understand what his son is saying here. How many parents do? We want our children to be safe and cared for, so that they don't suffer in their lives. We want them to have the assurance of no worries about food, shelter, clothing, and all the extras. If we wish them spiritual comfort, it is usually in the form of religous dogmas. What if they figure out for themselves that thing we are missing? They might want to walk the Camino, and place greater value on that experience than the sum of Bill Gates' checking account. Can we accept that? Understand it? If we're lucky, maybe we'll take up the quest ourselves.
It is said that walking the Camino brings about change in the pilgrim. Shirley MacLaine says:
This can be disturbing and frightening because it means that through this energy one becomes a more psychic being--for better or for worse...The experience of complete surrender to God and self is the motivation behind most people's attempt at the Santiago de Compostela Camino. (Shirley Maclaine, The Camino, p5, 2000 Pocket Books edition)
Perhaps the value of the Camino and other pilgrimages is that challenge to our bodies and spirits that the pilgrim is forced to struggle with. The struggle will take up the motivations the pilgrim brought with him and reveal the truth or delusion in them and that will be the pilgrimage's lesson to the receptive soul.
The Way is a quiet expression of faith. Not in the religious sense, but in a deeper, spiritual one that affirms universal good and its power of transformation. The central character, Tom, has grown to middle-age, closed off from love of family and friends by a shell hardened over time. The breaking of that shell is the Camino's lesson for Tom that leaves him a better person.
Finding out who we are and the power we have is the primary value of pilgrimages. Here's to seeking yours.
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The Way captures the natural beauty of the Camino, but there are a couple of scenes where the sky is marred with obvious SAG artifacts. There is a message in that, I believe, that was untended by Mr. Estevez. It just shows me that our quest for truth and inspiration is done against the backdrop of an unspeakable evil.